Busting Bellevue’s bubble

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Boys win season opener against rival

By Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter

That loud popping sound emanating from the Mercer Island High School gymnasium on Friday night was not the cheers from the standing-room only crowd. It was not the Animal Band celebrating a big victory. The sound was the No. 3-ranked Wolverine boys basketball team’s bubble bursting as Mercer Island beat its biggest rival 64-57 during the season opener.

“It was a great team effort,” said Mercer Island head coach Ed Pepple. “This might be one of the biggest first games we have ever won.”

And while seniors Leroy Lutu (24 points) and Matt Schut (17 points) led the Islanders in scoring, it was the play of another senior, Drew Sexton, that was the Islander glue.

“He was super important for us,” said Pepple. “He can do everything. That is why he was elected a captain.”

Sexton finished the game with 12 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals. None of those stats were more important than his final steal of the game with 50 seconds remaining. The play led to an assist by Lutu to Schut.

“I was just gonna hold the ball,” said Lutu. “But that sixth sense kicked in, and I saw Matt cutting to the basket. Drew brings leadership. I wouldn’t take anyone else in the state. He is like the energizer bunny.”

Both teams seemed to feed off the energy of the huge crowd.

“I have had coaches tell me, ‘I don’t mind playing you, but I hate dealing with the Animal Band,’” said Pepple.

Bellevue’s crowd filled the visitor’s section and then some. The Wolverines needed all the help they could get. They were without one of their best players, Alex Schrempf, who was out with a high ankle sprain.

“We prepared for him,” said Pepple. “But we don’t worry about them, we worry about ourselves.”

The Islanders also entered the contest with injuries. Islander senior Ben Shoemaker saw court time despite suffering a concussion during a recent practice.

“We made some adjustments, but [varsity assistant] coach [Paul] Lagerstedt’s defensive game plan was great.”

That defense came up big during the fourth quarter as Mercer Island held Bellevue to five points and committed just two fouls. Overall, Mercer Island was 13-of-22, while Bellevue was 7-of-9.

The Islanders began the game with momentum, getting a high lofting pass from Lutu to Schut at the rim for the 9-5 lead. But Bellevue would take its first lead 18-17 at the end of the first quarter.

Mercer Island would not see the lead again until just before halftime as Paul Morse picked a Wolverine’s pocket and found Sexton driving to the basket for the 33-32 lead.

The third quarter saw Mercer Island extend the lead to 48-41, the largest of the game, as Lutu stole the ball and found Evan Zahniser, who in turn found Sexton for a wide-open jump shot.

But Bellevue charged back to tie the game at 52-52 at the end of the quarter.

A big pass from Islander Jack Gala to Lutu for two points gave Mercer Island a 54-52 lead to start the fourth.

“Gala made some great plays and big rebounds,” said Pepple, of his senior forward.

Three possessions later, Bellevue would be struck another blow as leading scorer Matt Olson, who hit four three-pointers during the first half, had to leave with cramps in his leg.

The win should put Mercer Island ahead of Bellevue in the state top 10 as the Islanders ranked in sixth place. More importantly, the win gives Mercer Island the inside track on Bellevue for the league title.

Mercer Island played Mount Si Tuesday (after Reporter deadline) and will travel to Issaquah, Friday, to take on the Eagles with a 7:30 p.m. tip time.

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